David Wade Correctional Center (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

A federal judge ruled on Tuesday evening that David Wade Correctional Center, a state prison in Homer, Louisiana, has violated the constitutional rights of prisoners by housing them in inhumane conditions and failing to provide adequate mental health care. 

In a 165-page ruling, Western District of Louisiana Judge Elizabeth Foote found that the prison doesn’t adequately screen and evaluate prisoners for mental illness, fails to treat them beyond providing medication, and does not have an adequate suicide prevention program, among other issues.

“This widespread, cruel indifference towards the mental health care and treatment of inmates at DWCC by mental health professionals, combined with the gross systemic deficiencies…rises to the level of a constitutional violation,” Foote wrote. “As it currently stands, DWCC is violating the Eighth Amendment rights of its prisoners, many of whom suffer from mental illness, by housing them in inhumane conditions on extended lockdown and by failing to deliver those inmates adequate mental health care.”

The ruling comes after a four-week trial that was held at the beginning of the year. Plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit said that prisoners with mental illness housed at David Wade — which has been used as a disciplinary camp for prisoners who violate rules at other prisons throughout the state — were frequently placed in “lockdown” for minor violations of prison rules, and held in filthy cells for over 23 hours a day. During that time they were subjected to abuse from guards, and not provided access to counseling or other mental health services.

“The Court finds that the conditions…. have the mutually enforcing effect of depriving individuals of basic mental health needs and exposing them to mental torture,” Foote wrote.

She also ruled that the prison was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. Foote, however, found that the plaintiff failed to prove a separate claim that the prison was interfering with prisoners’ legal mail. 

A “remedy phase” of the lawsuit — which will determine whether or not the prison is continuing to violate the constitutional rights of prisoners, and what actions need to be taken to address those violations — is scheduled for trial on January 17, 2023. The trial is set to last fourteen days.

The lawsuit was brought by Disability Rights Louisiana, along with cooperating counsel with the ACLU. 

“This victory on behalf of hundreds of men at David Wade is the result of six years of work by our clients who are incarcerated there, who refused to give up their rights, or the hope that things can be different,” said Melanie Bray, DRLA Assistant Legal Director and lead counsel, in a press release. “When people with mental illness are sent to the state prison as punishment for a crime, the state has an obligation to provide baseline mental health care. The proof in this case showed that there was virtually no mental health care at DWCC, and that men there are suffering greatly as a result of the state’s indifference.”

A spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling. 

‘A depository for the mentally ill”

In March of 2020, close to 400 prisoners were being held in restrictive housing units at David Wade, and around 40 percent of those prisoners had some form of mental illness. 

Those prisoners, Foote found in her ruling, had a particularly difficult time getting out of extended lockdown because the conditions exacerbated their symptoms, which led to additional disciplinary action by prison staff.

“DWCC’s security staff typically treats the manifestations of these symptoms as disobedience as opposed to symptoms of mental illness,” Foote wrote. “As a result, inmates with mental illness remain on extended lockdown for months and, sometimes, years and return cyclically when their symptoms recur.”

The length of time a prisoner spends on extended lockdown is determined by a review every ninety days by a “classification review board,” but no mental health professionals are involved in the decision. Foote wrote that she “must unfortunately conclude” that the prison “utilizes extended lockdown as a depository for the mentally ill.”

And the conditions in extended lockdown at the prison, Foote found, are severe. 

Prisoners are held in their cells for 23 hours a day on weekdays, with one hour for recreation and showers, and 24 hours a day on weekends. The cell sizes in the restrictive housing tiers, at 56 square feet, are “substantially smaller” than cells used for isolation at other prisons throughout the country, and they provide no visual stimulation, Foote found. The noise level on the tiers “fluctuates between complete silence and loud chaos,” and the climate can be brutally cold in the winter and extremely hot in the summer. (One prisoner testified at trial that he would stick his feet in the toilet just to cool down.)

The prisoners are “deprived of nearly all meaningful human contact and receive little to no mental stimulation” while on extended lockdown Foote found. During the very limited outdoor time prisoners are given, Foote wrote, “they are confined to empty cages that are too small to allow for meaningful physical activity.” 

“There is no recreational equipment in the cages, and there is no shade or covering in the cages to protect inmates from the elements,” she wrote.

Standard lockdown conditions are not the harshest some people held at David Wade are  forced to endure. There is also a disciplinary procedure for prisoners within lockdown known as “strip cell status,” where individuals stripped of their clothing other than a paper gown, are not allowed any property or recreation time, and are only provided a mattress between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. But those mattresses are frequently not returned on time, Foote found, “which results in inmates sleeping on the concrete bunk or metal rack.”

The policy that governs strip cell status at David Wade says that it “should be used as a last resort to protect lives and property.” But Foote found that “in reality, inmates are placed on strip cell status for actions that do not present an immediate threat to the safety and security of the prison, such as merely throwing a cup on the tier.”

Foote found that prisoners were placed on strip cell status with no input from mental health professionals, and without any regular disciplinary process, and that the policy “serves to inflict mental and physical torture” on prisoners.

‘Antithesis of what proper therapy and treatment require’

While the conditions on extended lockdown exacerbate mental illness, the ruling found that prisoners are provided hardly any mental health care beyond psychotropic medication. Every aspect of mental health care at David Wade —  screening and evaluations, treatment, staffing, prescription and distribution of psychotropic medications, record keeping, and the suicide prevention program —  has systemic deficiencies, Foote wrote.

The prison’s one psychiatrist, Dr. Gregory Seal, is contracted for just 18 hours a month — which includes his travel time from Shreveport. He meets with prisoners in a disciplinary courtroom, where there is almost always a security staffer present. Prisoners are shackled during the meetings, and Seal sits “on a pedestal towering over the inmates,” according to the ruling.

“This entire interaction seems to create an environment that is the antithesis of what proper therapy and treatment require,” Foote wrote. 

Other staff are not qualified to do the mental health assessments they are tasked with, and Foote found that some required regular mental health assessments of prisoners on extended lockdown were just being copied by prison staff.

“The Court conducted its own examination of…twenty documents and confirmed that they are all identical except for the inmate’s name and inmate number,” Foote wrote. “Indeed, when held up to the light, all the lines purportedly filled in individually…overlap precisely. That is, they appear to be exact copies.”

When prisoners are put on suicide watch, they are held in conditions identical to those who are placed on “strip-cell” status. Foote said that the suicide policies at the prison are “punitive, as opposed to a realistic and practical form of treatment,” and called them “egregious and cruel.”

“There is no initial assessment before placing an inmate on suicide watch, no treatment for inmates while on suicide watch, and there is no assessment or treatment before the inmate is removed from suicide watch,” Foote wrote.

Prison staff and Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections officials, Foote found, knew that the conditions and lack of mental health care were causing serious psychological harm to prisoners, but failed to “take reasonable steps to alleviate those conditions.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...